Monday, October 03, 2011

Shining hope

No one is surprised when a person makes an unselfish sacrifice on behalf of close family or kin. Evolutionary psychologists offer compelling reasons why natural selection might have favored kin-group altruism.

Nor are we terribly surprised by acts of courage or generosity on behalf of a sports teammate or fellow soldier. Culture, too, surely reinforces altruistic behavior among people who are allied toward a common goal.

But what defines an "ally"?

In a recent "Ideas" section of the Boston Sunday Globe, psychologist David DeSteno of Northeastern University described some experiments on altruistic behavior done with co-researcher Piercarlo Valdesolo. They found that such subtle bonds of alliance as wearing the same color wristbands were enough to trigger feelings of moral affinity. The researchers' subjects need not even be aware of the variables affecting their actions. It was enough that they consciously or unconsciously registered the "likeness" of the other.

So much for the notion that justice is blind. But no big surprise either. We tend to be more generous and forgiving to people like ourselves: same race, same religion, same political party -- same wristbands.

I suppose there is something hopeful about the wristband experiments. Sometimes it seems that everyone in the world today is wearing the same things -- baseball caps, tee shirts, flip-flops -- listening to the same music, networking on the same social media, talking on the same cell phones. Vernaculars are vanishing. Global commerce is erasing unique identities. Religions are losing their withering claims to possess God's special favor. Will the wristband effect usher in a golden age of global affinity? Will the biological tribe finally expand to embrace the planet?

I was deeply moved the other day by this photograph that accompanied a NYT column by Nicholas Kristof. Two kids who could not be more unalike in cultural background, education, race, gender and who knows what else. Bonding to do good. No religious agenda. No political agenda. Only a human agenda.

And the spark of romance.

Maybe its time we all wore one wristband, one color, worldwide. One cause. One humanity.